What Vaclav Havel Understood: Only Democracy Guarantees Peace

The Czech dissident, politician, and writer, who died today at 75, left important lessons for a world that badly needs them

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Among all of Vaclav Havel's contributions to the world -- playwright, activist, Czech independence leader, Czech president, and what today's New York Times obituary calls "a global ambassador of conscience" -- his least celebrated role might be that of public intellectual. That's not due to any lack of ardor for his writings, which have been widely read and praised; his other acts, which helped steer the course of post-war European history, simply outshine them. But one of his most forceful ideas has special resonance today. Peace can only be assured where there is democracy, and if we wish for a peaceful world we must make it a free and democratic one.

"Today's world, as we all know, is faced with multiple threats," he said in 1993 in Athens, on accepting one of the countless honors he received. "From whichever angle I look at this menace, I always come to the conclusion that salvation can only come through a profound awakening of man to his own personal responsibility, which is at the same time a global responsibility. Thus, the only way to save our world, as I see it, lies in a democracy that recalls its ancient Greek roots: democracy based on an integral human personality personally answering for the fate of the community."

It's a message that seems obvious only in the abstract, and is frequently forgotten in the particular. During the Cold War, the U.S. responded to the threat of World War Three in part by aiding democratic, anti-Soviet movements like Havel's -- but only in Eastern Europe. In the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America, the U.S. suppressed democratic movements that it feared might align with communism and it supported or imposed pro-American dictatorships. Europe has been blessed with a period of remarkable peace, but those less democratic regions endured decades of conflict. In the Middle East, the U.S. still today supports dictatorships in the name of stability, and still today the region is among the world's most violent.

"Without free, self-respecting, and autonomous citizens, there can be no free and independent nations. Without internal peace, that is, peace among citizens and between the citizens and their state, there can be no guarantee of external peace," Havel wrote in 1985, when Soviet oppression of his country was at its height and often targeted him personally, in an essay titled Anatomy of a Reticence. "A state that denies its citizens their basic rights becomes a danger to its neighbors as well: internal arbitrary rule will be reflected in arbitrary external relations. The suppression of public opinion, the abolition of public competition for power and its public exercise opens the way for the state power to arm itself in any way it sees fit. A manipulated population can be misused in serving any military adventure whatever."

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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